Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners, A Review

Asterix went to the movies last week. We watched Shola Lynch’s Free Angela and All Political Prisoners and attended a short, moderated discussion after. The event was put together by New Voices Pittsburgh.

 

We can’t stop talking about it. I heartily recommend the film. While it’s a not a perfectly made documentary (I found some moments either anti-climactic or incredibly dramatic––as if the documentarian couldn’t fully decide on a tone), the subject matter is tightly focused and incredibly well-rendered. But that’s easy when your subject matter is Professor Angela Davis.

In 1970, after a judge, prosecutor, and three female jurors died in an unfortunate shootout in Marin County, CA, public intellectual and known Communist Party member Angela Davis (and more specifically, Angela Davis’s guns) became prime suspects in the matter. Davis’s work to free political prisoners (such as the Soledad Brothers) implicated her as a militant or a radical or a revolutionary. No one could decide then, and people still have difficulty deciding on Angela Davis now, as well as the place in history for the Black Panthers, the SDS, and other groups that helped define the spirit of the era. The documentary focuses on Davis during the events leading up to her (wo)manhunt, arrest, and subsequent trial. Shola Lynch interweaves present-day interviews with archival footage from the 1970s, home videos, and newspaper headlines, so we get to watch Angela Davis speak throughout time.

Which is to say: Angela Davis is magnetic. She’s magnetic in the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, and the present. Her conviction and passion are infectious across decades and geography. It’s not hard to see why she inspired so many people worldwide.

Not to mention the importance of the cause. There is an irony and a justice to someone who fights against political imprisonment to suffer through a false and politically-motivated imprisonment. But Angela Davis did just that and continues to fight for change. Yet, it’s been forty years, and so many people in this country are still unjustly imprisoned for political reasons. The current state of our prison system (mostly being turned into a for-profit enterprise in order to “solve” mismanagement through privatization) does not give much hope for widespread reform.

I heard about a kid who’s facing an eight year sentence for having consentual sex with his sixteen-year-old girlfriend when he was eighteen. They’d been together four years. Her parents didn’t approve of him and subsequently pressed charges because he’s black.

I heard about a hispanic young man who’s been in jail for over a decade for stealing a television. He’s twenty-eight.

People of color are overwhelmingly imprisoned in the United States, and Angela Davis argues that this is racially motivated. That to be a person of color in this country is to embody what it means to be political. Our skin is contested territory.

 

No one thinks the prison-industrial-complex in this country is perfect. We are aware that people of all colors are falsely imprisoned. And that many people of all colors are justly and fairly incarcerated. But when 1 in 3 black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetimes, and people of color experience harsher treatment than their white counterparts even in schools, it’s hard not to pay attention to Angela Davis’s cries of obviously racially motivated and institutionalized injustice.

Democracy Now! interviewed Angela Davis in October 2010. During the interview, Davis considered the relationship between the enslavement of blacks and the prison-industrial-complex.

And, of course, any of us who are interested in African-American history, and particularly the black liberation movement, have to address Frederick Douglass, the system of slavery. And we’ve come to think about the prison industrial complex as linked very much to slavery, as revealing the sediments and the vestiges of slavery, as providing evidence that the slavery we may have thought was abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment is still very much with us. It haunts us, especially in the form of this vast prison industrial complex, a prison system within the US that holds something like 2.5 million people, more people in prison than anywhere else in the world, more people per capita, as well. …And that’s really only because of the disproportionate number of black people and people of color whose lives have been claimed by the prison system.”

Throughout her career, Davis has advocated various solutions: violence, nonviolence, awareness campaigns, public demonstrations, as well as countless lectures and public appearances, not to mention books and live interviews. Angela Davis is an academic, an intellectual, a black woman, and an agent of change. How bad could that be?

Richard Nixon called Angela Davis “a dangerous terrorist.” But Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisons thinks she’s more than that.  After all, what is the difference between being a militant, a radical, a revolutionary, and a terrorist?  How can we tell the difference when they all sit in similar prison cells in our country?

What does it mean to be an agent of change? No one complicates these definitions more than Angela Davis.